Georgia baseball snatches momentum early from Mercer, wins NCAA regional opener

UGA head coach compliments HoCo standout in 13-3 victory over Mercer

Georgia head baseball coach Scott Stricklin speaks to the media after the Bulldogs' 13-3 win over Mercer in the NCAA regional Friday night in Athens.
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Georgia head baseball coach Scott Stricklin speaks to the media after the Bulldogs' 13-3 win over Mercer in the NCAA regional Friday night in Athens.

Mercer’s Angelo DiSpigna leaned backward while turning his head toward the home plate umpire in disbelief. A first-inning call didn’t go in his favor with a pressure-filled task placed on the freshman.

Mercer’s glimmer of hope came in a leadoff single to potentially silence a sellout crowd, but DiSpigna’s post-strike out trudge toward the dugout ended it abruptly.

One swing of good fortune propelled Georgia and sent a spiraling array of misfortune Mercer’s way. Georgia steamrolled its way to a 13-3 victory to open NCAA regionals at Foley Field. The Bears (35-28) face elimination Saturday.

DiSpigna’s pitch told Friday’s tale in the matter of seconds it took for a fastball to reach the mitt.

“We felt good about that single, but it’s hard to get multiple hits off of a good arm,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “Once we couldn’t get (Bill Knight) to second, we were in trouble. He was good from the first pitch and jacked up in his home environment.”

Georgia (45-15) went to bat with an accompaniment of cheers and barking chants. Not the most melodious sequence, but those sounds continued for the 28 minutes it took for the Bears to record three outs. A duo of home runs from Aaron Schunk and Tucker Maxwell gave Georgia eight runs in an inning for the second time this season — the other coming vs. UMass Lowell.

“There’s always emotion in a regional,” Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin said. “Eight runs in the first allows your pitcher to settle in and be more aggressive. You have a cushion and can make some mistakes, and (Georgia starter Tony Locey) didn’t really make any. That’s what we needed.”

Mercer head coach Craig Gibson speaks to the media after the Bears' 13-3 loss to Georgia in their NCAA regional game Friday night in Athens.

Entering the contest of intrastate foes, an aspect of intrigue lay in the pitching matchup between former Houston County teammates, Locey and Tanner Hall. Their performances quickly darted in opposite directions. Hall, after unfathomably pitching 10 innings in two days last weekend, recorded only two outs before Gibson made a swap. Georgia’s offense found a surge and recorded five consecutive hits. A walk to Mason Meadows ended Hall’s anticipated postseason appearance.

Gibson continued to cycle through his staff, but the bleeding ceased at too slow of a pace. Georgia had one of its best offensive performances of the night, and Jackson Kelley hitting Randon Jernigan set up a crushing grand slam by Maxwell — pacing his first 3-hit game this season. Like the batting practice home run that broke a windshield in the left field parking lot, Maxwell’s shot burst Mercer’s window of opportunity.

“We ran into a buzzsaw,” Gibson said. “We got hit in the mouth and it was hard to recover.”

Locey allowed the single to Knight, but a string of dominance (which now seems ho-hum for the Bulldogs’ ace) followed. Five straight punch outs and many 98 mph pitches had 11 MLB scouts in attendance hitting their radar guns time-and-time again. Locey eased through six innings, allowing three hits and striking out seven. Another Schunk home run — a three-run blast — allowed head coach Scott Stricklin to pull Locey and make a flurry of substitutions.

“He’s probably the best arm we’ve seen this year,” Gibson said. “It’s not very often that I’ve come across an arm like that in my 16 years of coaching. It’s great to watch, but not so fun from the other dugout.”

Mercer found a way to cool off the Bulldogs with strong relief appearances from Scott Smith and Will Bowdoin through two innings. Fortunately for Gibson, the Bears have depth remaining for an elimination game.

At last, the Bears heard cheers with a three-run home run from second baseman Kyle Dockus, his first of the season, off of Logan Moody.

“It felt good, but I would’ve rather been on the winning end,” Dockus said. “That’s all that matters.”

The blowout halts the Bears’ five-game win streak which sparked a blazing finish in the Southern Conference tournament. That run came off of a blowout loss, too, an 11-0 defeat to Samford.

Mercer (0-1 in regional) must bounce back quickly as it faces off against Florida Atlantic in an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m. Sawyer Gipson-Long (4.90 ERA) is slated to start for the Bears with their season at stake.

“Battle, just like we did last week,” Mercer right fielder Kel Johnson said. “I don’t think any of us have been on a team with more fight. This wasn’t fun and we didn’t enjoy it. We will come out tomorrow and fight hard.”

Georgia (1-0) finds itself in the winner’s bracket against third-seeded Florida State. The Seminoles enter Saturday’s play after a 13-7 win over Florida Atlantic. Georgia last played Florida State in 2015 and won a three-game series at Foley Field.

“Florida State can hit a lot of balls a long way,” Stricklin said. “They’ve got a good guy going in (C.J.) Van Eyk, and so do we in Emerson Hancock. It’ll be fun.”


1 p.m.: No. 2 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 4 Mercer

7 p.m.: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 3 Florida State

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